It’s been a tough week for Alabama sheriffs. A Propublica/al.com report, put together over a year’s time, made national news detailing outlandish abuses of power and wastes of public funds by nine of the 10 sheriffs in this state who lost re-election last year — abuses that included transferring money to personal accounts or outright destroying public property.
To put a cherry on top of that sundae, last week a 32-year Alabama sheriff made the news after being indicted on federal charges of wire and tax fraud related to allegations he grabbed $400,000 from the inmates’ food fund and defrauded his own church.
Considering there are only 67 county sheriffs, that’s 15 percent of Alabama’s top county cops accused in one week of being involved in activities ranging from childishly wasting public money to outright theft. And let’s not forget last year closed out with Morgan County’s sheriff pleading guilty to misdemeanors related to her decision to remove $150,000 from the inmates’ food fund and “invest” it in a car lot run by a convicted felon.
And you don’t have to go back much further to find even more stories.
The point is that out of a rather small group of individuals, Alabama’s sheriffs seem to be very well represented when it comes to outrageous or even criminal behavior. And that’s nothing new.
But Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack took last week’s news particularly hard and launched a full whine on social media about just how mistreated law enforcement, and sheriffs in particular, are by evil folks in the media:
“I am so frustrated with the constant bombardment of negative news by certain ill motivated media outlets. One such has been a series of reports which cites issues and problems with certain law enforcement agencies and particularly Sheriffs. There is no doubt, there is and are some individual circumstances which are unacceptable and deserve review. However there are 67 Sheriff Offices in Alabama. The overwhelming number of which are very progressive, professional and highly trained agencies,” Hoss wrote on Facebook last Friday morning. “These offices provide high levels of protection, service, community involvement, leadership and security in their counties. There are hundreds of stories EVERYDAY in our state where Sheriffs Offices are doing great things, arresting bad people, solving crimes, building communities, fighting drugs, protecting children, protecting schools, supporting other agencies and advancing the Office. These are not reported because they are positive stories and a true reflection of accurately what is occurring. Shame on these outlets for not being balanced.”
I get where Hoss is coming from. It’s natural to be defensive about your profession. I certainly get tired of hearing people advancing the theory that news reporters all get together and plot to make up false stories about good people. It’s especially tiresome when that kind of whining comes from a public official who has enjoyed overwhelmingly positive coverage his entire time in office.
But I part ways with Hoss in that when I see members of my profession engaged in unethical, harmful behavior, I’m more than willing to call them to task and I love seeing unethical journalists discredited. Mack, however, seems to think that not only should Alabama’s sheriffs be the most powerful elected officials in each county, they also ought to be free from criticism — even if they steal $750,000 in jail funds to buy a beach house, drill holes in smartphones or otherwise waste tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars buying unnecessary items just to screw over the guy who knocked them out of office.
Close to 200 people piled on under Hoss’ post Friday, most blasting the media in general and al.com in particular for their horrific mistreatment of our God-fearing sheriffs. It’s hard to imagine many of them actually read the story though.
It was a well-documented account of the kind of government waste and corruption newspapers are tasked with reporting. On top of that, the most damning information came from — sheriffs themselves! That’s right, these new sheriffs are the ones who dished the dirt to the evil media about the waste, corruption and missing money — all those things Hoss doesn’t seem to think should be reported. A good reporter should bury stories about political corruption and government waste in favor of writing something the sheriff can use during re-election, right?
In 30 years of working in the news business, I’ve seen my share of sheriffs. I’ve seen some good ones, but probably more bad ones. And I’ve certainly seen many who started out with good intentions but were corrupted by the power of the office.
Alabama has been rife over the past several years with problems stemming from sheriffs intentionally misreading the state law to say they could personally keep any money left over from feeding prisoners. This led to the aforementioned $750,000 beach house purchase, or another sheriff who fed prisoners an 18-wheeler load of corn dogs so he could pocket a fortune. Mobile’s former Sheriff Jack Tillman ran up hard against that very issue before leaving office under a cloud, having to pay back $13,000 he’d put in a retirement account.
Fortunately neither Mack nor Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran have had issues with food funds, but Baldwin’s top cop doesn’t exactly always make life the easiest when it comes to reporting news, good or bad. He’s typically Slowdraw McGraw when it comes to picking up the phone to get back to a news reporter.
And while it would be nice to always be able to report on deputies saving lives and catching bad people, we’re often left spending tremendous amounts of time performing our duties as government watchdogs. For example, when the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office won’t release body-camera footage of the events that led to a man holding a fanny pack on I-10 being shot with a high-powered rifle by a deputy, it’s a newspaper’s job to try to get that information.
Or when a deputy chases people up and down the interstate, including into oncoming traffic and that ends in the deaths of five people, there’s a story. It’s not a happy one or one Hoss will talk much about, but that takes up a lot of time and ink that could be spent on reporting other things. Hoss told us back in April a report on that fatal collision would be forthcoming in days or “maybe a week.” Still waiting.
Mack should welcome well written, thoroughly researched news stories that expose the failures of what is an embarrassingly large percentage of his fellow sheriffs instead of spending his time pretending they’re being mistreated. And if he wants to have some input into what’s in the news, answering the phone would be a great start.
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